CPF: The Ethics and Politics of Naming Names of Enslaved Africans in Digital Humanities

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The Ethics and Politics of Naming Names of Enslaved Africans in Digital Humanities
A Virtual Workshop at Stanford University and Institut d’Études Avancées, Saint-Louis du Sénégal

28-29 October 2022
Call for Papers

Jennifer L. Morgan (2021) has recently identified the “maddening synchronicity of erasure and enumeration” that has combined to render enslaved people –especially enslaved females in Morgan’s account—transported to the Americas silent and absent from the historical record. The lives of enslaved Africans whether transported across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans or liberated in Africa were also subject to second level erasure through quantitative methods, which have been foundational to Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and global histories. Based on exacting archival research, such quantitative methods have nonetheless resulted in what Morgan refers to as “prisons of meaning … [making] a certain kind of scholarship possible while rendering another quite impossible.” The wrenching experiences of enslavement, rupture from natal homes and families, and transportation far away were characteristics of slavery and first generational slave status. Enslaved people the world over struggled against these processes of deracination and erasure and built anew kinship and communities.

However, such erasures meant different things to different populations of formerly enslaved people. Racialization of status took on specific meanings in different settings. In the Americas, emancipation and the end of slavery did not necessarily change the racialization of status resulting in new forms of struggle and resistance. In many contexts, formerly enslaved people were “rendered without history” through various mechanisms of renaming. Descendants of former enslaved people especially in the diaspora turned to well-established means of genealogical research to trace their ancestors, while others have gravitated to newer methods of DNA research to find out their ancestral origins (NYTimes 30 March 22). For this group, recovering their “names” and their origins are important. In Africa and in other parts of the world where obvious racialized markers do not automatically hint at an enslaved ancestor, many former enslaved “would rather forget” their enslaved past or that of their ancestors precisely because former slave status remains stigmatized (see for example Klein [1989], El Hamel [2013], Hahonou [2012], Rodet [2015], Becker [2021]). Although a “public secret” of an enslaved past may be widely known, as Alice Bellagamba’s elderly Gambian informants argue, “not all should be said” (Bellagamba 2012).

Furthermore, scholars should also be mindful of the different pathways to the end of slavery. In some societies, manumission enhanced owners’ powers over their slaves. In other cases, legal emancipation was a state decree that formally ended enslavement. In yet other cases, enslaved people on ships were liberated by naval squadrons imposing treaties that prohibited the slave trade. And in some cases, enslaved people sought their own freedom through self-purchase, through the courts, or by fleeing to spaces where slavery was outlawed. The contemporary ramifications of histories of enslavement lead to different approaches and stakes when analyzing and interpreting slavery in the past. How can scholars of slavery humanize the lived experience of the enslaved while also protecting the wishes of those whose descendants may want to remain unidentified?


Such political and ethical questions relating to the best practices of using the newly available digital repositories that often list the names and demographic characteristics of enslaved and liberated Africans are at the center of this workshop. Drawing on the ethical standards of human subjects research, we need to be concerned with 1) do no harm; 2) informed consent; and 3) preferences for anonymity. We welcome discussions of all ethical issues, not merely these three. As with most ethical standards, none of these standards map neatly on to historical research. Students of the past have an obligation to be “witnesses” to past injustices and to raise issues about how the past shapes the present. We are obliged to raise issues about slavery, its legacies, and systemic racism, yet we also need to avoid harming individuals living today.


Ethical considerations of conducting digital historical research on slavery and emancipation have been hotly discussed for a number of years. Given the public-facing character of many of these digital projects, the stakes of naming versus anonymity are high. While digital projects on enslavement can promote public engagement with historical injustices, new scholarly research, and pedagogical innovations, digital histories of enslavement risk re-dehumanizing enslaved individuals, re-reducing them to data. Usingn digital research to reclaim the humanity of enslaved individuals through tracing their origins and identities has emerged as an important frontier in this work. We can no longer get informed consent from the enslaved Africans in our registers of slavery and liberation. Naming the names of the enslaved and inscribing them in “walls of memory” may serve as symbolic reparations, but as Ana Lucia Araujo argues, such commemoration must also involve the living ancestors of those commemorated (Araujo,
2021). While those who would rather forget may prefer anonymity, scholars are bound by the standards in their disciplines and various idiosyncratic rules of archives. Easy answers do not exist. For example, using pseudonyms may protect those who may not wish to be identified, but such practices risk perpetuating the historical erasures of enslavement.

To that end, we seek proposals for papers from all global regions that grapple with the ethics of naming enslaved people in digital history projects. We welcome papers from projects early in their research lifecycle and from those with established projects. Key questions include: How have names been incorporated into digital histories of enslavement to date? How have you managed to balance the ethics and politics of naming names and respecting anonymity? How have researchers and the public engaged with names? How does the inclusion of names promote an ethical, humanistic research practice, and is this possible while maintaining anonymity? And, how have you involved stakeholders from non-academic yet impacted communities, such as the descendants of enslaved people?

For those interested in participating, please submit 300-word abstracts of proposed papers to Richard Roberts (rroberts@stanford.edu) by 1 June. Draft papers of approximately 5,000 words will be circulated in advance to encourage discussion and will be due by 1 October.

The workshop will be held virtually Friday and Saturday, 28-29 October 2022.


Araujo, Ana Lucia. Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Becker, Felicitas. “’Looking for Life’: Traces of Slavery in the Structures and Social Lives of Southern Swahili Towns,” Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 10 (1-2), 2021.

Bellagamba, Alice. “Reasons for Silence: Tracing the Legacy of Internal Slavery and Slave Trade in Contemporary Gambia,” in Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space, ed. Ana Lucia Araujo. New York: Routledge, 2012.

El Hamel, Chouki. Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Hahonou, Eric and Lotte Pelckmans, “’History Must be Re-Written!’: Revisionist Ambitions among West African Slave Descendants,” in Slavery, Memory and Identity: National Representations and Global Legacies, eds. Douglas Hamilton, Kate Hodgson, and Joel Quirk. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012.

Klein, Martin, “Studying the History of those Who Would Rather Forget: oral History and the Experience of Slavery,” History in Africa 16 (1989).

Morgan, Jennifer L. Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021.

Rodet, Marie, “Escaping Slavery and Building Diasporic Communities in French Soudan and Senegal, ca 1880-1940,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 48 (2) 2015.